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Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim is shown in a photo from the Facebook page "R.I.P Sammy Yatim." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto teenager Sammy Yatim is shown in a photo from the Facebook page "R.I.P Sammy Yatim." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Facebook (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

The police must learn to de-escalate Add to ...

In 2010 on a July night in the Alberta town of Okotoks, an RCMP officer shot and killed a depressed man who was armed only with an umbrella. The investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team found the officer’s actions to be legal and justified. Why? Because the incident occurred at 2 a.m. in low light after a 61/2-hour standoff outside the man’s home, he was known to own registered firearms, including a shotgun, and the officer opened fire after the suspect turned off his porch light, came out of his front door, dropped to one knee, raised the umbrella like a rifle being aimed and pointed it at the officer. Three quick shots killed him. Afterward, police found the man’s last will and testament in his house. The official cause of death was homicide, but unofficially it was “suicide by cop.”

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The man understood that anyone armed with any kind of weapon who directly threatens a police officer, or anyone who takes any action, armed or unarmed, that makes an officer feel threatened, will be subdued with brutal and possibly lethal force. Arming the police, teaching them to be aggressive and training them that their personal safety overrides all other considerations – including the mental state of the person they are confronting, the suspect’s ability to respond rationally, or the use of any tactic that might de-escalate a situation – is standard practice across the country.

This needs to change. As the Sammy Yatim case in Toronto and similar ones in other Canadians cities have demonstrated, the public is not convinced that lethal force is justifiable solely on the subjective ground that an officer feels threatened. Police schools need to teach officers that – except in the most obvious and extreme cases – their primary role in confronting a citizen who may be mentally ill is to delay and de-escalate, not to confront aggressively and resolve quickly. Given the lack of mental-health resources in Canada, police need to demonstrate a better understanding of the fact that there is a good chance a lone person they confront who is behaving erratically is not a heedless criminal bent on their destruction. Officers also need to be drilled in the fact that sharp and aggressive commands to drop a weapon or get down on the ground may be meaningless to a psychotic person, or even counterproductive, and that an inability to obey those commands is not grounds to shoot him or her.

As well, all front-line officers in every province should be equipped with non-lethal weapons, such as tasers, that allow them to use a range of force and not resort immediately to the most deadly one hanging from their hip.

Years of precedent have reinforced the “stand your ground” culture. No matter which province and which investigative unit is involved, a finding that an officer has fired his weapon in a criminal fashion is so rare as to be insignificant. As long as the officer believes they or the public are in danger, the officer will be exonerated – even if they violate their department’s policies on the discharge of a sidearm.

In Vancouver in 2007, a mentally ill man named Paul Boyd who went on a rampage was shot at nine times after police were unable to subdue him. The original finding cleared the police – until a video surfaced five years later showing Mr. Boyd was wounded, disarmed of the bicycle chain he had been swinging and was crawling on his hands and knees when an officer fired the shot that killed him. The case is now under review. In Montreal in 2011, a homeless man known by police to suffer from schizophrenia was shot because he was overturning garbage cans and had brandished a knife that he used to cut open bags in his search for pop cans he could return for the deposit. Three officers pepper-sprayed him, chased him down the street and ultimately one of them shot him in the back. An innocent bystander across the street was also hit by a round and died. Investigators exonerated the officers of any criminal wrongdoing.

By no means are the police unjustified in using deadly force in every confrontation, or even in every case involving someone who is obviously mentally ill. And finding that an officer has acted criminally, after being trained to resort to lethal force, would in many cases be unfair. Officers’ decisions are made far away from the comfortable armchair of afterthought. We have granted police the monopoly on deadly force in Canada; Canadians expect them to use it. There was, for instance, no public outcry after the shooting in Okotoks.

But firing on an 18-year-old boy holding a knife alone inside a streetcar a good 10 feet or more away from the nearest officer, as was the case with Sammy Yatim, is no longer the best option when none other has been tried. It is telling that the passengers on the streetcar were able to safely leave the vehicle when Mr. Yatim originally pulled his knife. One passenger backed slowly away while shielding himself and his girlfriend with his bicycle. Unarmed, the passenger had to use his wits and stay calm.

The police arrived shortly thereafter with their pistols out, and within minutes Mr. Yatim had been shot. We do not grant police officers the power to carry a sidearm so that they can stop thinking. They need to be more thoughtful than ever. By some estimates, as many as a third of the people killed or hurt during incidents with the police in Canada are mentally ill. Other countries are facing the same crisis; in Australia, almost half the people shot dead by police between 1989 and 2011 suffered from a psychotic disorder.

At the same time, a study in Schizophrenia Bulletin in 2009 showed that officers who undergo training in dealing with the mentally ill are much more more likely to choose de-escalation and avoid the use of force than officers who haven’t. Training can save lives, but the current levels of training in Canadian police forces remain inadequate and poorly enforced. There is no excuse for this.

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